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  • Foto del escritorEUGENIA TENENBAUM

WITCHES: Myths and Realities

I think that witches, as a subject, are a bit like Marie Antoinette: a lot has been said about them, even more has been written about them, and it could be said that more than half of it is uncertain or outright false.

What do we know about them? Who were? Why were they called witches? Under what pretext were thousands of them burned at the stake or drowned in rivers?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions can hardly be found in artistic material culture: pictorial works do not reproduce reality, but rather distort it, thus turning it into a myth and a legend that still survives among us today.

When we think of the word "witch", the collective imagination is in charge of returning to us the image of an old lady, with a hooked nose, dressed in poor clothes (in many cases, rags blackened by dirt and the passage of time) who by the nights he flies on a broom and that the rest of the time he is accompanied by a familiar animal, most of the time a black cat. It is bold to claim that none of these features have their roots in past realities, but the question is not so much what the roots are, but what are their implications. For this reason, our task will be to briefly approach some of the artistic stereotypes generated around witches and analyze them through the gender perspective, trying to elucidate what part of reality and what part of lie they tell us.

Let's start with what we have at home: our friend Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, one of the best-known paintbrushes when it comes to linking witches with their artistic representation in Spain through his cycle of black paintings and some engravings belonging to the series "Whims". In Goya the problem is twofold: sometimes a critical reading of his works can be made and, in others, they underline the stereotype of these figures. Be that as it may, we can use his works as an excuse to get closer to the history of witchcraft.

In "El conjuro" (1797-98) and through a pyramidal composition, our beloved Goya gives us the keys to enumerate and dissect some of the socially constructed characteristics with which we associate witches. First of all, we have a group of four beings covered in cloaks (or rags) with aged, deformed and ugly faces: clearly, they are the witches. In the center of the circle that they form, a fifth figure provides the note of color wearing a yellow cloak: a color that throughout the History of Art has always had negative connotations, either of betrayal or of envy (sometimes, the tunic of Judas is usually this color in the scenes in which he betrays Jesus Christ by kissing him on the cheek). This fifth figure crouches, extending its hands to a sixth: white betrays her purity and thus instantly establishes her in the role of victim.

In addition, above the scene we see nocturnal animals (owls or barn owls in this case) that take up (or stop) their flight. This is the artistic solution that Goya finds for the metamorphoses of which witches were accused: they turned into animals to go to covens, to torment the neighboring community or to escape when discovered. Thus, we see how even a figure that seems unfinished at the peak of the compositional pyramid is undergoing said metamorphosis.

As if the ugliness and the black clothes were not enough, the witches are accompanied by baskets full of newborns, following the trail of accusations that these women received as "eaters and kidnappers of children". One of them carries in her hands a rag doll into which she sticks a pin, a feature also present in many of the preserved texts of Spanish trials in charge of the Inquisition and American trials.

In the well-known work of the Aquelarre (1819-20) (here we expose a fragment), the idea that is divided is the same: groups of women in a motley situation pay attention to an animaloid figure characterized by its blackness. In this sense, it could be a he-goat wearing a cape or a caped person wearing a he-goat's head. Either way, the he-goat has always been associated not only with satanism, but also with witchcraft. Therefore, we have all the necessary information to begin to break down these stereotypes from two works:

Point number 1: witchcraft was a gender issue that served as a tool for controlling and disciplining female behavior in the Modern Age: despite the fact that there were persecutions already in Antiquity and also in the Middle Ages, the cut of the Modern Age It was not so much religious as civil, that is to say, it did not attempt so much against the beliefs of women but directly against their acts and liberties.

Point number 2: this female persecution was also a consequence of the persecution suffered by women who were engaged in trades related to medicine, phytotherapy or obstetrics. In fact, women were the first to find and analyze the positive and negative uses that could be given to herbs and plants: they implemented them to create creams, potions and ointments that served both to relieve menstrual pain and muscle or joint problems. This was linked, in turn, to the voluntary termination of pregnancies in a society where contraceptive methods had been harshly persecuted by the church for some time, and which led to the criminalization of both their practice and their knowledge. In this way, in many cases, the women burned by witches were simply wise women, old women who practiced medicine and obstetrics, or women who were anxious to know the means and use it to their advantage. This is also where their reputation for eating children comes from: of being abortionists concerned about the health and decision-making capacity of pregnant women.

Point number 3: the persecution of witches also served to generate hostility in the female support networks, which gradually disappeared due to the climate of tension and constant accusations. Women were taught to confront each other: with their neighbors, with their sisters, and with their friends. They were urged to distrust other women and also to solve any willing with an accusation of witchcraft: better to be the one who accuses than not to be the accused. This is also what Goya reflects in his Conjuro: a group of older women harassing a young woman to lead her astray.

This point, at the same time, is crucial to understand the vision of witches that began to appear in the 19th century, closely linked to the rise of women's liberation movements and the appearance of the "femme fatale" archetype as a misogynistic stereotype generated for fuel sexism rather than combat it. The best example of this is the work Brujas yendo al Sabbath (1878) by Luis Ricardo Falero:

Distant from Goya's work by almost a century, Falero's work, despite everything, includes all those stereotypes we have talked about: we have brooms, we are old and ugly, we are young and naked. We have vice, we have danger and we have warning: the world of witches is the world of sin, the world of the dark, the world of the dead.

In this sense, the primitive conception of the coven (a word from Basque that means "pasture of the goat") as a meeting of women to perform satanic rituals is understood by Falero as an orgiastic meeting between women of all ages, corpses of the dead and animals with a great negative charge: bats, the goat and reptiles of black color, the color of darkness, before the white of purity.

In this way, no matter how much technical prowess they show, no matter how much mystery they hide, we see that these representations, the most famous and well-known by all, the only thing they do is two things: embezzle reality by giving themselves over to myth and repeat said misappropriation turning it into habit. Witches had little or nothing to do with the version and vision that the male gaze has generated over the centuries and, if history has taught us anything and if we should learn anything from it, it is that we cannot expect from man to teach us what only women lived through, since the light that it will shed will not only be biased, but will be biased solely in terms of their own interests, not in terms of ours.

"Witches are for us a fundamental pillar in our imagination, being a source of inspiration for many of our designs. We take the opportunity to show you a little more about ourselves."

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